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Summary:

Almost everyone I know listens to music while working. When I ask them why, the reasons are varied. Some say it’s to perk themselves up as they start their workday or to drown background noise. Others claim that listening to music helps them work better.

Almost everyone I know listens to music while working. When I ask them why, the reasons are varied. Some say it’s to perk themselves up as they start their workday or to drown out background noise. Others, including myself, claim that listening to music helps them work better.

But what do we really know about how music affects our work? Probably not much beyond our personal perceptions and experiences. The good news is that there are some studies out there that can help to give us a better understanding of what’s happening when we listen to music while working.

Research from University of Windsor in Canada showed the effect of music on the work performance of software developers. According to the study, without background music the designers’ quality of work was lowest and it took them more time to complete tasks. With background music, participants reported positive mood change and enhanced perception while working. Plus, the researchers noted that this positive change in mood correlated with increased curiosity — an excellent thing to have when doing creative work.

However, the same research showed that listening to music at work doesn’t provide automatic benefits. For those people who don’t usually listen to music while working, it takes a bit of time for them to get used to it and reap the rewards. At the same time, once you’re used to having “work music,” your productivity and work quality are slightly diminished when the music is taken away.

The paper also cites a study on air traffic controllers where their personality may have a role in determining how music affects work. Extroverts felt reduced anxiety whenever music was playing, while there was no measurable effect for introverts. In a previous article, Anne Zelenka discussed personalizing your work music. She was right — the effect of work music depends on several factors, among them your personality.

The type of music you listen to also matters. In a study published in the Journal of Music Therapy, excitative music tends to increase feelings of vigor and tension, while sedative music eased tension. That may be stating the obvious, but here’s the interesting part: Listening to your favorite type of music, whatever it is, lowers your perception of tension. This means you don’t feel as stressed or tense. But your heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure is higher when listening to excitative music — even if you like it.

Given these facts, I guess the question of what kind of music you should play depends on whether you work better tense or relaxed. In his book “On Writing,” Stephen King wrote that he preferred to work while listening to hard rock music. Personally, I seem to work better and faster when I’m a bit tense, so my work playlist includes the soundtracks of heist films, Rhapsody in Blue, and The Toreador Song. If you’re unsure how to come up with tracks for your work music playlist, you can use tools like Pandora and Last.fm to get automatic recommendations.

So should you listen to music while working? Going back to the paper from University of Windsor,  the researchers state that “…over time music listening based on workers’ choice to listen ‘when they want, as they want’, is beneficial for state positive affect, quality-of-work, and time spent on a task.” In other words, go ahead. Don’t be afraid to experiment a little to see what works for you.

How does music affect your work performance? Do you have a work playlist you can share with us?

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  1. Jennifer Spies Monday, July 12, 2010

    Instrumental music (especially from my favorite movie/musical soundtracks) makes me more productive, or at least I feel that it does. While I do enjoy listening to up-beat pop music because I feel more energized, I tend to concentrate more on the words than what I am working on. I usually listen to upbeat music while taking a short break from my work so I re-energize before heading onto the next task.

  2. Matt Hannan Monday, July 12, 2010

    I agree with Jennifer, lyrics can be a distraction. When I am heads-down coding or working on a particularly difficult problem I have one CD that I’ve listened to (since 1999). I know this isn’t an ideal solution for everyone but the fact that I know every beat of every song (it’s a cd of remixes, essentially the same song 5 different ways) puts me in a zone and makes concentrating easy.

  3. Jim Barrett Monday, July 12, 2010

    I wonder about the study that found that it takes a while to reap the benefits…if you’re not used to listening to music does the music lower your productivity, and when you become accustomed to it you are simply ‘back where you started’ in terms of concentration, etc? Personally I tend to concentrate on the music and lose track of what I’m working on. Maybe I need to try instrumental music as Jennifer suggests?

  4. Music definitely affects our psyche, and mostly how we work. Nice that you wrote about this as many seem to forget this. I think, music should be allowed in the work place as it can help lessen tension. For freelancers such as myself, music is a vital part of our telecommute work. It’s like your energy drink, minus the aspartame. Has anyone tried binaural music? I tried it once with a stereo headphone and I’d never felt the most productive in my entire work life.

    1. Where can you download binaural music? It seems an interesting concept. I’m on a Mac.

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  7. Stacy Vanden Heuvel Tuesday, July 20, 2010

    Completely depends on the type of music I’m in the mood for in relation to the work I’m doing.
    Working in code? Need total silence…SEO? Need something R&B and motivational.
    Interesting, I remember an elementary advanced math teacher who used to play classical music to see if it improved our test scores. Didn’t work on me because I was in a ballet company and all I did was choreograph in my head during tests.

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